By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Selling fake organic fertilizer has earned a California farm supplier nearly a year behind bars, three years probation and a $125,000 fine.
Peter Townsley must also spend six months in a halfway house and complete 1,000 hours of organic farm-related community service.
According to a federal indictment, Townsley won approval for an organic fertilizer in 1999 but secretly changed the formula to include synthetic sources of nitrogen the following year.
Though his "Biolizer XN" contained prohibited ammonium chloride and ammonium sulfate, Townsley continued to market the fertilizer as organic and ultimately sold $6 million worth of it, the indictment said.
Townsley was indicted in 2010 after an employee blew the whistle on him to state agriculture officials, according to a statement by the U.S. Justice Department.
After the actions were brought to light, the California Department of Food and Agriculture strengthened its oversight of organic fertilizers, said Steven Beckley, executive director of the Organic Fertilizer Association of California.
Under new laws and regulations, agency officials now have the authority to license and regularly inspect organic fertilizer manufacturing facilities.
The Organic Materials Review Institute, which ensures products meet organic standards, is also now requiring inspections of plants that make fertilizer with more than 3 percent nitrogen content.
"It's stressed the importance of the integrity of organic fertilizer," said Beckley.
Despite the improvements, the Cornucopia Institute -- an organic industry watchdog group -- believes the USDA must further strengthen its oversight.
"This is a values-based industry," said Mark Kastel, the group's co-founder. "If someone damages the credibility of the label, everybody loses."
Townsley's punishment was "substantive" and "will hopefully serve as a deterrent," but larger, more politically connected companies continue to circumvent organic rules without timely retribution from USDA, he claimed.
A spokesperson for the agency's Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees organic rules, declined to comment.
Similar to fertilizer, the cost of organic feed has risen substantially -- providing an incentive for malfeasance, Kastel said. Feed is also sold in a way that makes it harder to identify in the distribution chain.
Cornucopia Institute has brought this concern to the USDA but the agency's deliberations on this subject are proceeding at a "glacial pace," he said. The agency has similarly responded to worries about organic dairies buying non-organic replacement heifers.
"It's languishing," said Kastel.
Outdoor access for dairy cows and layer hens is another ongoing problem, as "industry-scale" producers continue to sidestep organic requirements that animals must be able to go outside, he said.
Kastel said these issues have persisted through Republican and Democratic presidential administrations due to the influence of lobbyists.
"The power that is constant in Washington (D.C.) is from the agribusiness lobby," he said.